This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The transcript below includes a longer version of the conversation. 


Cheryl Hatch: So you started your position in January 2014. And in that time, there have been some bumps along the way, and you weathered a pandemic. And now there's a giant construction project and rebuild at Rogers High School. So how do you manage the rapport between you and the members of the city council? And the school committee? And how do you navigate those different challenges between being a representative of the school district, being an educator, and now apparently wearing a construction hat as well?

Colleen Burns Jermain: That's right. There is a construction hat involved on a daily basis these days. Those that work with me and know me, I'm very much one day at a time, every day is an adventure. And I think attitude and your approach always help to make it a success or not. And for right now, for how I deal as an individual with our city council members, school committee, teachers, everyone, community, parents, it's, it's we. It's not an us, it's not a them. It's we. It's all of us working together to do what's best for our children and for the community. 

Hatch: I asked because you have had some challenges in the past couple of years with the decision to rebuild Rogers High School and the failure of a proposed regionalization project in Middletown. The district has a total of roughly $100 million to fund the renovation/construction of the new high school. It's now possibly $3 million to $11 million over budget and up to a year behind schedule. Is that an accurate assessment? And what are your plans moving forward on this project? And then specifically, how will you, the district, acquire the additional money if you need it?

Burns Jermain: So you are correct. We have hit some bumps in the road as far as the construction with the pandemic. We're facing labor shortages, inflation costs that have never been seen before. And with it, they'll most likely never go down either, those costs and labor challenges. … We've been fortunate where the city council has already sat down with the school committee and have had that discussion, knowing that going forward, most likely we will have increases. 

Hatch: The plan was just approved to level the Career and Technical Education building [at Rogers High School]. That was a discussion for some time. That decision is upsetting to some in the community. How do you explain the decision? And what's your take on that?

Burns Jermain: So first and foremost, thank you for asking that question, because there's a lot of confusion about this. All right. So when the new high school is built, career and tech programs are in the building. That was the whole mission and goal of one fully integrated high school that has its career and tech programs within the same building. There is not two separate buildings. It's one building. So all the programs had been included in that design. … So everyone needs to be really, really clear. We still have all our career tech programs, except Cosmo [Cosmetology] and Auto[motive Technology]. We're finding additional funds to make sure they're put into the building. And in the meantime, we are planning. If, for instance, it's not necessarily built or ready by the time we open the new building, we're going to have alternative backup plans where our children will still continue with the programs. We'll work with our community partners, and we'll make sure they'll have that hands-on learning that is so critical for their certification. So all programs are still there. They didn't go away. And thank you for asking that question, because the phone's been ringing since that Monday night meeting.

Hatch: And you mentioned the timeline for completion. So what is the optimistic, realistic timeline for when the project will be complete, and there will be a new Rogers High School?

Burns Jermain: So you are correct with delays. We've had April 2025, and it's been moving. April 2025 is now the data we have in front of us. … So we're hoping and keeping our fingers crossed we can get it to December of 2024 and then maybe even sooner, but right now the realistic one our contractor Gilbane is letting us know that it's April 2025.

Hatch: What are your primary concerns regarding education in Rhode Island, and the greatest challenges you see at a state level, not necessarily in your district?

Burns Jermain: I think at a state level, it's getting us all on the same page in the same plan. And that's tricky because you have, you know, Rhode Island is such a diverse state, so many different communities. And we all have our challenges, and we all have different types of populations. But I think keeping all of us focused on the core instruction, and that means the reading and the math, but also equipping the districts and leaderships to be able to change [with] the rapidly changing demographics is something I know Newport in particular has been working on. And working with our community partners to make sure we're supporting all our families and students. When I arrived in the district – and this is reflective, I believe, also of the state – at that time, our English Language Learners were about 4%; we're now almost at 18-20%. And what that means for a school district is one, we have to change how we do business on a day-to-day basis to make sure we're equipped to handle the different cultures, the different languages; and, at the same time, allow our families and to feel like confident and feel like their children are being supported in that environment. … So that's just one of the things. We also have to deal with and recognize that all children come from different environments. And in Newport in general, our free and reduced rate has, you know, reached highs of 70-73% of our students that are eligible for free and reduced lunch or meals. And that does make a difference. You know, children, children can't learn if they're hungry.

Hatch: You have a new principal at Thompson Middle School, Dr. Michael Browner, Jr. Dr. Browner was a teacher at Thompson for 20-plus years. And I know for the majority of that time, he was the only Black teacher in the school. He's now the principal. And he's starting his first year as the principal at Thompson Middle School. What does his hire and presence as a leader represent for Thompson Middle School and its students? And what does he bring to the leadership position?

Burns Jermain: I think Dr. Browner is an example of what hard work and living your life so your dreams come true is. He's a living example of that. He has always wanted to lead. He's always wanted to lead a school. And education is just in his blood. And you can see it the moment you talk to him, when he starts talking. … And the district is working very hard to diversify our staff as much as possible, so that our staff does reflect more and more each and every day our children and their families.

Hatch: There's a shortage of teachers for special needs students and programming. How serious is the need, and what's being done to alleviate the shortage?

Burns Jermain: So yes, we do have a shortage in many areas, including special needs. Math and science are other two, are our other two areas. What Newport has done in an effort to help promote and support the career of teaching is one, we've partnered up with Salve Regina University. … We have a very, I'll say aggressive teach, student teaching program in which we have a lot of the special education student teachers working in our schools. … And then Roger Williams is another university we've been working with. The other thing we've been doing … is we're working with the Equity Institute … with the TA to BA program. And TA stands for teacher assistant, and BA is bachelor associates. And what we're doing is, we're actually growing our own as far as para educators, teacher assistants who already work in our schools, and are interested in becoming teachers. 

Hatch: The pandemic and the lockdown were tough on teachers, students and families. How are the students and the teachers faring now? How have you personally, and this school district more broadly, addressed the need for additional mental health and curriculum support for students and teachers and staff? 

Burns Jermain: Last year was the first school year students started without masks. So when you think about it, this will be the second year. And so there's still a lot of concern about COVID, for some, and also for the impact it had on all of us. I don't think we're fully going to know those impacts for many years from now. … And then you have those social emotional needs we see. And we do see them. And with that, we've implemented different curriculum in the classrooms. And we've also hired more staff in that area. We have more psychologists. We have more behavioral specialists. We have a lot of, I'll say, specialized programs, especially at the middle school and elementary school to help the children get through all of that. At the high school level, they were in middle school, most of them, when they went through this. And we've increased our guidance counselors, our counselors up there as well. … The Department of Health has been very good about grants, making them available to the school districts to be able to implement additional supports for the area of mental health. Project AWARE is something that came down from the state of Rhode Island, and Newport did qualify and does have substantial funding for that. So we are making adjustments for the social emotional learning of our children.